Perfect conditions for strawberries

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Strawberries grow best in full sun, but they will grow in light shade, for example, under spreading thin-leafed trees but not in dense shade. Strawberries prefer acid soil — a pine or casuarina needle mulch is excellent but most Australian soils are acid enough anyway — with plenty of humus and moisture.

How to look after strawberries
Keep strawberries moist. You'll need to water your strawberries twice a week, unless it rains. Drip irrigation is excellent, mulch almost a necessity.

Many people use a black plastic mulch — you get earlier fruit in spring and later in autumn, and fewer weeds. You also need to water less. However, strawberries can bake under black plastic in hot summers and occasionally on very hot sunny days. The fruit that is in contact with the plastic cooks before you manage to pick it, which is horribly disappointing.

If you mulch your berries with home-made compost or lucerne hay, you may not have to feed your berries at all. Otherwise give them a scatter of blood and bone or old hen manure in winter, spring and mid-summer. Well-fed strawberries produce more berries. But don't just give them a high nitrogen fertiliser like sulphate of ammonia, or you'll get lots of dark green leaves and few berries.

Strawberries will burn in extreme heat. In hot, dry arid areas grow them under a pergola. In cold areas mulch them well so they get an early start, and cover with hessian in early spring to keep the early flowers from burning off.

Pick off runners in summer and autumn or you'll get masses of new plants and less fruit. Most plants become infected with virus after a few years and their production drops. When that happens take them out and grow new ones in clean soil.

How to pick
Often! Berries ripen quickly, and if you don't pick every day — or at least twice a week — the slugs or birds will get them. Don't worry if you can't resist eating the first few berries straight from the bush. This is normal. After a week or so you'll manage to bring some inside to eat in a more civilised fashion at the table.

Look for some of the new giant Japanese strawberries if you can. They taste glorious, even if they do look like strawberry sumo wrestlers. Just make sure they are fully red before picking them.

I recommend at least a few bushes of Cambridge Vigour, one of the earliest fruiters, starting here in September and continuing to Christmas. You also get a few autumn berries if you cut the plants back in January.

Tioga, Torrey and Naratoga are also early varieties, worth diversifying with. Red Gauntlet is one of the most popular strawberries. The fruit are large, though not as well-flavoured as many others, and the bushes crop over a very long season. If you want just one variety this is probably it. Narbello is another long cropper.

In subtropical areas Redlands Crimson is the most important commercial variety, cropping from autumn through to spring. Phenomenal is one of the most popular home varieties. There is a variety called Sweetheart which gives small to medium fruit which is deep red and sweet through to the middle (as its name implies) and the plants are neat, healthy and prolific to boot.

Otherwise ask your local nursery for the variety that does best in local conditions (if they can't tell you or say they're all much of a muchness, go to another nursery). There are specialist varieties suitable for locations from Hobart to Darwin.

Always buy virus-tested runners — next door's spares are probably virus infested, and won't bear well. Commercial growers replace runners every three years, as the virus is spread by aphids and plants are usually infected by then. But the home gardener, who doesn't mind a smaller yield, needn't bother. If you are choosing your own runners try to take the first runner on a plant, and one that hasn't flowered yet. Thin out beds as they become crowded.

Growing strawberries from seed
Most strawberries grow from runners — the old plants produce new smaller plants each summer. But several varieties make viable seed. Sow in spring. Strawberries grow quickly and easily, and do make pretty ground covers under trees and shrubs, or around potted plants.

Ornamental strawberries: These fast-growing ground covers have bright red tasteless fruit that even birds ignore. But they do look pretty. If you're desperate for something red in a fruit salad you can soak ornamental strawberries in the juice from the fruit salad. They still won't taste of much, but they'll look pretty!

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